Countless beloved movies, from It’s A Wonderful Life to Wet Hot American Summer, did not immediately gather large, appreciative audiences during their initial theatrical debuts. But even by those standards, the release afforded Empire Records qualifies as unusually unceremonious. Despite its Warner Brothers distribution, the movie came out on September 22, 1995, in 87 theaters; a few weeks later, it was gone. By comparison, another youth-culture flop-turned-cult-attraction, Kevin Smith’s Mallrats, came out a month later from a smaller distributor, and still managed to scrape together nearly 1,000 (mostly empty) auditoriums and generate nearly ten times as much money as Empire Records. In the fall of 1995, Mallrats was a flop, while Empire Records was a genuine obscurity.
These days the figures have blurred, as figures tend to do with time, and after going on to achieve substantial home-video success, Empire Records is generically regarded as a movie that didn’t do so well back in the day but found its audience on home video, just like Mallrats (or, to cite a more prestigious example of similar vintage, The Shawshank Redemption). But really, what Empire Records achieved is far more impressive than other movies of its ilk; it became a movie that many people of a certain age (born between 1978 and 1988, say, though its reach may extended further) have heard of and in many cases cherish, without the benefit of Shawshank-like Oscar nominations or a Kevin Smith-style cult of personality. Even more impressive than that: Empire Records ascended to cult-favorite status despite being a lousy movie.
I haven’t drawn this conclusion from the jaundiced point of view of an old person—not entirely, at least. Empire Records was a teen-targeted movie that came out during a particularly fallow period for teen movies (before She’s All That led the John Hughes echo-boom) and also when I was an actual teenager. Consequently, I remember wanting to go see Empire Records in the fall of 1995, and I remember realizing that this would not be possible, presumably with the help of Entertainment Weekly’s box office charts. Like so many others, I caught up with it on video.
It didn’t do much for me then, and it doesn’t do much for me now; I can understand the devotion of its fans only so far as it’s the type of movie I always want to like. It has an appealing one-big-day structure that has worked beautifully for teen-centric movies like Dazed And Confused and Superbad, with the subcultural spin of following the teenage employees of Empire Records, an indie music store that’s about to be sold to Music Town (a soulless chain that somewhat inexplicably requires their employees to wear aprons). In a misguided attempt to save the store, Lucas (Rory Cochrane) takes cash from the safe and brings it to Atlantic City, where he hopes to turn it into enough money for manager Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) to buy the store back. His near-immediate loss of that money is just the first big event of a day that includes a visit from washed-up singer Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield), delighting Harvard-bound Corey (Liv Tyler), who’s the unaware crush of A.J. (Johnny Whitworth), and so on, with semi-subplots for sexpot Gina (Renee Zellweger, in an early role), depressed Debra (Robin Tunney), and goofball Mark (Ethan Embry), all employees who attend to such vital record store business as dusting and dancing.
Despite its staff redundancies and bizarre amount of dusting, the movie’s earnest silliness is not its crime. Earnest silliness can, in fact, yoke together with real feeling: Director Allan Moyle also made the similarly themed, era-specific, and cultishly adored Pump Up The Volume, in which a young Christian Slater presides over his own bedroom radio station and speaks truth to power. The two films should make a perfect double feature. Volume, though, is a lot smarter about the Slater character’s pretensions—in real life, the guy might well be insufferable, yet his self-conscious rants feel authentic in their self-conscious challenges of authority. For Empire, Moyle does his best to capture the record store’s energy with his camera, but he’s saddled with characters who don’t reward his effort.
The personality most analogous to Slater in Volume, and maybe the worst-conceived character in the film, is Cochrane’s Lucas, who, even (or especially!) after losing the store’s money, speaks in a tone of self-satisfied, faux-satirical detachment. His dialogue includes juvenile overwriting (“a responsibility like this requires the obedience of a saint”), empty rejoinders (“What’s with today today?” is clumsily set up by having a character ask “What’s with you today?” several times in a single scene), and meaningless catchphrases (“Damn the man!” later amended to “Damn the man! Save the Empire!”). Doubtless all of this has a certain teenage appeal (“Damn the man” and “What’s with today today?” are both widely quoted by fans of the film) and, as such, some of the Lucas dialogue does approximate a degree of realism in depicting how a really irritating teenager might talk, especially if a really irritating teenager wanted to emulate Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites (though Lucas, at 21, is actually older than the teen characters he hangs out with). But the movie has no eye or ear for teenage (or early-20s; to the movie, they’re indistinguishable) pretension, happy instead to take the wit and wisdom of Lucas more or less at face value. The scene where Joe finally serves Lucas a vicious beating in the store’s back office should be harrowing or at least dramatic; instead, it’s satisfying for all the wrong reasons.
The rest of the characters, including Joe himself, are more blandly likable than Lucas, though Liv Tyler’s central performance can’t help but wither when compared to her partner in Aerosmith video crimes Alicia Silverstone, whose sparkling Clueless came out just a few months before Empire Records. Though Tyler doesn’t have a commanding presence, it’s not really her fault the movie doesn’t work; the whole cast fails to develop a clear onscreen shorthand for their supposed friendship. This is the kind of movie where halfway through, a girl tells the boy who has a crush on her that he’s her best friend, even though the movie has barely shown them interacting. The extended version of the film available on DVD doesn’t deepen any of these relationships, possibly because Empire Records could run for several days without deepening anything. But beyond the thinness of characterization, forgivable in any number of peppy teen comedies that preceded and followed it, this movie blows its chance for greatness or even goodness by letting down its era. It’s a Totally ’90s movie that fails to engage with its decade in a meaningful way, starting with its music.
It would be unfair to expect Empire Records to match High Fidelity in the limited realm of great record-store comedies. But the movie doesn’t just fail to capture hipster bona fides; it seems remarkably neutral about the very idea of pop music, especially for something written by a former record-store employee. (Carol Heikkinen based the film on her experiences working at Tower Records, as detailed in BuzzFeed’s exhaustive appreciation of the movie from last year.) When a character puts a song on the store PA and announces “I love this,” the movie, by conspicuously leaving out any further details about said song, gives the impression of a script with “Soundtrack Cut TBD” in place of a committed detail that might point to a particular taste, good or bad (even if other, even longer cuts of the movie, per that BuzzFeed history, supposedly included more specific dialogue about music). Those cuts gave the movie its first blush of success; though it disappeared quickly, several of its soundtrack singles charted.
Indeed, the Empire Records soundtrack—both the accompanying CD and the even-larger array of songs that play during the movie—is vast. Yet its songs don’t seem to interest the characters or the filmmakers much, to the point where it’s sometimes hard to tell whether the movie is employing diegetic or non-diegetic sound, and not in a playful way that blurs the line between fantasy and reality. It’s tempting to say that removing the soundtrack would kill most of the movie’s 1995 signifiers immediately, but worse, it wouldn’t make much of a difference either way. The soundtrack captures alt-rock in a post-Nirvana gold rush, and if the accompanying movie felt affectionate toward half-forgotten mid-’90s alternative rock —or metal, or hip-hop, or any of the other musical genres it refers to without much love—it could be a nostalgic kick, regardless of legacies. Almost Famous, for example, isn’t hampered by the intentionally middling work of its fictional band Stillwater (or, for that matter, the sometimes unintentionally middling real music of its era). Instead, Empire Records feels opportunistic, not because of its music’s expired cool quotient—no one should expect 1995 movie teens to rock out to Built To Spill or Guided By Voices, and hey, that soundtrack album is pretty good—but because of the final film’s mirthless indifference to it.
Here’s the weird truth of this movie set in a record store: Hardly anyone in the store talks about music at all, let alone choice mid-’90s cuts, except to occasionally deride the admittedly well-rendered cheesiness of Rex Manning. (Although even there, the movie gets a little lazy: His 1995 music video looks more like 1985, even for a has-been). Even when the movie orchestrates a big tell-off scene for that jerk Manning, the characters hardly seem aware enough to provide satisfying catharsis. The best they can muster: They don’t actually like his new album! Sick burn! Rex Manning’s music and its relationship to the characters (even Corey, who purportedly lusts after him due to a childhood crush) has little specificity, which fits in with the movie’s general use of music as fodder for dopey punchlines. When Joe makes a dramatic entrance, someone plays a cover of—get this—“Hey Joe.” Later, in a witty commentary on the fiscal irresponsibility Lucas has displayed, someone blasts the Flying Lizards cover of “Money (That’s What I Want).” The staff of Empire Records seems perpetually moments away from making each other mixtapes consisting entirely of punk-rock covers.
Of the many familiar soundtrack songs, only “Free” by The Martinis and “’Til I Hear It From You” by The Gin Blossoms really score the images on screen with any meaning, and it’s mostly boilerplate teen-movie stuff; the Gin Blossoms song in particular is treated as a faint refrain, not the soundtrack to romantic catharsis. There are a few stray moments on inspiration, mostly involving Mark’s enthusiasm. One scene, perhaps the most memorable in the film, finds him stoned on pot brownies, seeing himself inside a Gwar video, where he is regretfully dispatched. His gleeful reaction to this terrible fate recalls the era’s Beavis and Butt-head—though it should be noted that both Beavis and Butt-head offered funnier and more engaging music commentary than anyone in Empire Records.
It’s that doofus-y youthful energy that Kevin Smith’s Mallrats does manage to capture, despite characters who are not actually as young as the Empire Records gang. Both Empire and Mallrats commune with the spirit of John Hughes movies; Empire does so superficially, like a kid imitating a grown-up’s intonation without understanding the words, while Mallrats at least offers a funny gloss on twentysomethings who operate with the clumsiness of teenagers from an ’80s comedy. Smith’s film, for all of its cartoony calculation following the more grounded Clerks, also has real love for its junky subcultures: comics, video games, local game shows, weird urban legends—the characters’ late-movie side trip to the “dirt mall,” for example, has a grody sense of place. Empire’s transition to a Music Town franchise, meanwhile, isn’t framed in terms of the store’s specific integrity as either a music store or a youth destination, but rather the mild inconvenience to its employees, who will have to (inexplicably) wear aprons and conform to a mandated store playlist—which, in 1995, would probably sound a lot like the Empire Records soundtrack anyway. In detailing the good fight to keep a record store independent, the movie should play even more now like an elegy for a waning era. Instead, it plays like a movie about a record store made by and for people who haven’t spent much time in record stores—a particularly amazing feat given that it was written by a record-store employee. No one in this movie would be fun to talk to.
That’s why my disappointment as a 15-year-old watching Empire Records for the first time means at least as much to me as my current befuddlement over its late-breaking popularity. I had only just started listening to current rock music in 1995, and a movie that could have whisked me further into musical obsessions while also providing the requisite teenage longing and shenanigans would have been a godsend. As it turns out, Mallrats and Clueless both did the longing/shenanigans combo better (and their soundtracks are also both good). In comparison to those movies, or even The Breakfast Club (about which I have complicated and not entirely warm feelings), Empire Records came off as thin and, frankly, more than a little phony. It didn’t give the teen movie a ’90s-spin; it got the genre ready for a late-’90s prep renaissance.
I’m not trying to advertise my teenage sophistication; I couldn’t claim much there even if I wanted to. (I barely knew who Kurt Cobain was when he died and, again, I loved Mallrats.) And I understand that picking on Empire Records, a movie that did not receive encouraging reviews upon its brief release and scrapped its way to becoming a cult favorite that has brought thousands of people real happiness, may seem churlish. In fact, there is admittedly something touching about the way the movie’s fans have lent it some meaning that the movie itself mostly lacks; it’s a formative experience first and anything else a distant second. Empire Records isn’t just a record-store movie for non-record-store people, but a teen movie that probably plays best to an audience that has seen as few teen movies as possible. This doesn’t make it a good movie. For the most part, it makes it a bad one. This bad one, though, can at least serve as a reminder that teenagers crave movies that speak to them, in tones serious or silly. And in their absence, sometimes any stupid thing, be it “Damn the man!” or Mallrats, will do.